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Click to view picture gallery“There are two kinds
  of estate cars — those
  with four-wheel drive
  and those without.
  And, as you’d expect,
  the have-nots out-
  number the haves.
  Enter Subaru’s range-
  topping 3.0 Rn Outback
  estate. With all-wheel
  drive, naturally...

The best-known all-wheel drive estates are undoubtedly Audi and Subaru. The latter fields two such contenders: the well-known Legacy estate, and the higher-riding and more rugged Outback version, offering 200mm of ground clearance for tackling those places where ordinary estate cars fear to tread.

The latest Outback models (priced from 20,625 to 28,445) now sport a noticeably cleaner look, relying less on body cladding to communicate their toughness and all-terrain credentials than their predecessors for
a more muscular and European style stance. Two engines are available, both the horizontally-opposed 'boxer' units favoured by Subaru to keep the car's centre of gravity low: a 2.5-litre with the choice of manual or auto 'box and the six-cylinder 3.0-litre we tested, that only comes with a five-speed automatic transmission but it has a sequential mode for manual changes.

Styling is intentionally low-key, with a refreshing lack of unnecessary visual distractions. The bumpers are substantial and the wheel-arches are defined by flared protectors linked front and rear by lower door pro-tector mouldings. A bigger front grille, gaping fog lights at each lower corner and an arched bonnet complete the frontal makeover.
At the back, prominent, arrow-head-shaped rear tail-lamp assemblies cut into the rear wings and large-bore oval 3.5-inch tailpipes — one
at each corner — exit either side of the rear valance. Combined with the flush-fitting tailgate spoiler, they hint at the Outback's performance abilities.

The full-time symmetrical four-wheel drive system is the same as fitted to the Impreza. The variable, AWD torque-split is balanced to provide an initial rear-wheel drive bias for extra handling agility — although it can send 100 per cent to either end as and when necessary. Handling, despite the raised ride height, benefits from this set-up. Much as you'd expect, given the rallying DNA. No surprise that it's a firm favourite with professional country folk such as doctors and vets. Or anybody, in fact, who has a real need to tackle bad roads in bad weather. If you sometimes tow a caravan, a boat or a horsebox then it's made-to-measure. It will happily pull 2,000kg — that's a substantial 4,409lbs — braked.

Not only does the permanent four-wheel drive provide the traction for such work, but the light-alloy three-litre engine supplies the power: 241bhp and, more importantly, 219lb ft of torque. Top speed is twice the legal limit at 139mph, and the Outback surges to 60mph in a brisk 8.1 seconds. Officially, city driving will see 20.3mpg, with a respectable 28.5 combined and a welcome 37.7mpg on the touring cycle. The 14 gallon tank allows a satisfying number of miles — over 400 — between fill-ups on long trips. Our overall test figure came out at 25.2mpg.

The Outback delivers an enjoyable drive — particularly on winding roads where you'll appreciate the good side, hip and thigh bolstering.
In part this is down to the four-wheel grip and poised handling in all conditions, but also to the responsive and tractable six-cylinder engine, that offers a smooth and steady stream of power both in town and on motorways. Kickdown is instant and power is delivered in a clean flow that continues all the way to the 7,000rpm red-line.

Also adding to the Outback's driveability is the five-speed 'Sportshift' auto. Manual shifting is simplicity itself: nudge the selector lever to the left to engage manual override. If you're leaving the 'box to self-shift this puts you in Sport mode. However, if you're planning some hands-on gear changing then push the lever forward to shift up; pulling back shifts you down. For extra control, Sports mode automatically prevents up-changes during braking. It also senses when the driver wants rapid acceleration, holding on to the lower gears for longer. And as a further aid to driver satisfaction, G-sensors detect severe cornering and again prevent any unwanted up-shifts when in Sports mode. Making life even easier is the large 'gear' display inset into the rev-counter that shows P through to D if you're in auto mode or 1-5 if you prefer to take charge of the shifting yourself.

Press on and you'll find the light-ish rack-and-pinion steering to be responsive, with a positive on-centre feel. And it's made all the more tactile by a smart, three-spoke perforated leather-wrapped MOMO steering wheel. Even on not-so-good blacktop the Outback is com-posed and unruffled, with a good ride — exhibiting reliably consistent directional stability whether you're travelling in a straight line or
carving up some winding country lanes. When pushed really hard, the Outback's safe and clearly signalled understeer — most four-wheel-drive vehicles do it — is easily countered.

Hard cornering throws up some body lean, but again it's all under con-trol and there's nothing to faze you. Besides, the standard-fit stability control system (Subaru Vehicle Dynamics Control) works well, neatly tucking the rear-end back into line the moment it begins to drift out. In addition, the 3.0-litre Outback is fitted with a limited-slip differential.

And all the time there's not a rattle or squeak from the light and airy cabin, which has an impressively solid feel throughout. The comfortable front seats are bolstered in all the right places and If you settle in
one it's immediately obvious that the Outback's trim and fit 'n' finish is good enough to match that found in more expensive prestige-badged rivals. Overall, build quality is of high quality and the cabin is well insulated from wind and road noise. The driving position is good and, although the steering column only adjusts for height, the range of adjustment provided by the electrically-adjustable seat more than makes up for this.

And thanks to good-sized glass, frameless doors and slim pillars, visibility all round is better than expected in an estate, with the sloping bonnet making for particularly good forward vision. While on the subject of frameless windows, they also make entry and exit a whole lot easier when the windows are down. In addition to plenty of leg- and headroom, front seat occupants also a broad range of manually-operated lumbar adjustment from very soft to very firm.

Four red-needled, chrome-rimmed dials are perfectly placed in the smart instrument pack. Two large dials (speedometer and rev-counter) are flanked by two smaller ones for temperature and fuel. All are positioned directly in front of the driver and feature clear white-on-black graphics and are easy to read at a glance.

The centre stack is crowned by a first-class touch-screen display
for the satellite navigation and driver's information systems. It's a top-notch set-up with foolproof menu buttons and post-code entry destination setting. On-screen graphics are also first-rate and spoken navigation directions are easy to understand and given in ample time. The drivers' information is comprehensive, detailing — amongst other things such as the outside temperature and full trip data — the car's maintenance schedule (tyres, servicing, battery, timing belt) with countdown reminders of one month, one week and, finally, one day.

The silver-effect centre panel is edged by a pale grey wood and is echoed on the selector lever knob that falls nicely to hand. Next down the stack is the stereo control panel, and at the bottom is the auto-matic climate control panel. Worth a mention is the 'fast cool' button that does exactly that. And another well-considered feature that not many cars have is the illuminated collar around the ignition switch —
so simple and so practical, even when you've lived with a car for a
long time. Controls use large, round knobs and intuitive, easy-to-use buttons and switches. More neat touches include sturdy, near-vertical inner door pulls. Not only are they easily grasped, but they come in handy on rough back roads!

Standard equipment includes a 6-stacker CD player with steering wheel-mounted stereo controls, cruise control, climate control air conditioning, four electric windows, full leather upholstery, 4-settings heated and 8-way electrically-adjustable front seats, electric sunroof and distinctive alloy wheels. The touch-screen satellite-navigation system in our range-topping 3.0 Rn test model is also standard.

Three can sit abreast in the back and the 60:40 split rear seat backs fold flat with the headrests in situ, providing a usefully long, flat load bay in seconds. Rear seating is higher than the front, so passengers travelling in the back get a good view forward. They also get a slim, wide and comfy centre armrest, lots of room and a comfortably-angled rear backrest. And Subaru have gone to the trouble of fitting rear
head airbags for them, too. With all the seats in use the large, well-shaped boot will easily accommodate a family's luggage. Loading is undemanding thanks to a high-opening tailgate, smooth-working luggage roller blind and a convenient sill height. Another benefit — whatever you're carrying — is the standard self-levelling suspension
at the rear.

Also likely to be valued by the family is the large sunroof with three-position auto opening that opens all the way back to halfway into the rear passenger compartment. The front wind deflector opens steeply and prevents buffeting up to quite fast speeds so that you can use it often — adding another pleasing aspect to journeys.

There's a good selection of useful cubby space bolstered by a storage tray out of sight beneath the boot floor (on top of the full-size spare wheel), along with two concealed storage bins in the load bay sides. With the seats down, 1,628 litres of space is available; with them
up, it's a still respectable 459. All of which make the Outback a very versatile wagon — one that delivers for commuting and effortlessly doubles as a daily workhorse. And that higher-than-normal ground clearance and all-wheel-drive system allows it to go where other estate cars fear to tread. Should you find yourself well and truly off-road, you'll be pleased to know that you have 200mm of ground clear-ance. Nothing, not even the exhaust, hangs down.

The Outback is well-equipped to protect its passengers, with dual-mode front airbags, side and curtain airbags as well as active anti-whiplash front seat head-restraints all fitted as standard. In addition, the foot pedals are designed to snap away under severe impact.
Active safety kit includes ABS with EBD and ventilated disc at each corner. And the brakes are first-rate, offering potent stopping power and smooth modulation. Seventeen-inch, five-blade alloy wheels shod with 215/55 rubber provide grip and comfort in equal measure.

The Outback serves up a well-considered blend of abilities that make
it ideal as a trustworthy everyday workhorse or a long-distance lugger for family holidays. Whatever you ask of it, within reason, it will do — and do to the best of its ability. Like the Forester, its Subaru stable-mate, it can be a lot more fun than you'd give it credit for and, added to that, Subarus enjoy an excellent reputation for robustness and reliability. Our advice? Choose your colour carefully — you and your Outback might be together for longer than you think.

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Subaru Outback 3.0 Rn
| 28,445
Maximum speed: 139mph | 0-60mph: 8.1 seconds
Overall test MPG: 25.2mpg | Power: 241bhp | Torque: 219lb ft

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--------------------------------------------------------- Subaru Outback 3.0Rn